On Saturday, Nov. 8, five contestants from San Antonio media will take to the stage of the Omni San Antonio Hotel at the Colonnade to sing their favorite songs and rev up the crowd to raise money for families living on the west side of San Antonio for the 12th annual American Sunrise Gala and Song Slam.

American Sunrise, a nonprofit organization founded by former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and his wife Mary Alice in 2001, is the major fundraiser for their organization serving families in one of the poorest census tracts in the city.

Contestants will sing two songs of their choice before a panel of three celebrity judges, who will give a critique of singers’ performances and select the two runner-up singers, who will advance to the second round to sing their second selection. The crowd will vote with a ballot on their favorite performance to choose the winner of the competition. The first place winner will receive two round-trip tickets from Southwest airlines and the second place winner will receive a memorable trophy or prize.

The judges include local singer Evelyn O’Leary, Angela McLendon Johnson of the San Antonio Housing Authority and the mariachi singers who have performed “God Bless America” during the San Antonio Spurs game for three years. They include Sebastian De La Cruz, a young San Antonio native who has performed at many events.

Contestants are gearing up for the 12th-annual American Sunrise Song Slam and Gala. Image courtesy of American Sunrise.
Contestants are gearing up for the 12th-annual American Sunrise Song Slam and Gala. Image courtesy of American Sunrise.

The goal is to raise money to fund the American Sunrise Learning Center on West Commerce Street and the Prospect Hill 100 Scholarship Fund. The Center currently serves 39 first through fifth graders, and the expansion of two new centers will afford the organization the opportunity to serve sixth through 12th graders.

“American Sunrise wants to track students from when they start elementary school to when they graduate from high school, assist them in their efforts to go to college, and provide them with a college scholarship,” said Executive Director Yoland “Lolly” Byington.

The school also works to build financial capacity of adults through financial literary classes and enhance the employability of children’s parents through English as a Second Language (ESL) and citizenship classes.

Students and parents are from the San Antonio Independent School District. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 41% of adults 25 years or older living in the district that the Learning Center serves did not graduate from high school, and 27% of residents live below the poverty line. 92% of all students in the district are economically disadvantaged, and 70% are academically at risk.

The median household income for the census tract in which the Learning Center is situated is $26,675, which is significantly less than the Bexar County Median Household Income of $45,688.

American Sunrise also serves in housing, economic revitalization, and community service capacities.

Byington said the organization will acknowledge the progress and success of the students at the Center during the gala.

“We have performance measures that prove our mission is working to help children learn to read and write in English and ultimately succeed in their academics and in life,” she said. “We are pleased to say that within this last year, we have awarded our American Sunrise students alumni scholarships to attend college at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M-Kingsville, the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and Schreiner University.

“With your support, we can make a positive difference in more of San Antonio’s west side families for generations to come,” the executive director said.

The Song Slam segment of the Gala offers an entertainment lineup that will begin with Navarra Williams, CEO of SAMMinistries, who will sing his first prize-winning song from last year’s Song Slam.

Byington said tickets for the event have been selling well, with attendees rushing in the last two weeks before the event. This is the first year for the American Sunrise Gala to be held outside of downtown San Antonio, she added.

One of this year’s contestants is Ken Slavin, a public relations consultant who has known Henry and Mary Alice for many years and for whom Henry was a client when he worked in public relations at the Atkins Agency.

San Antonio PR consultant and communications guru Ken Slavin is a professional singer who will perform in this year's Song Slam. Courtesy photo
San Antonio PR consultant and communications guru Ken Slavin is a professional singer who will perform in this year’s Song Slam. Courtesy photo

While Slavin has been involved in many fundraisers over the years, this is the first time Cisneros has asked him to sing, he said.

“When Henry and Mary Alice ask you to do something, you cheerfully accept,” he said. “I was very honored and surprised when they asked me to be at this event. I’ve done a lot of pro bono things over the years, and Mary Alice was my councilor when she was in office. I’m very eager to hear everybody and hear what songs they’ve selected.”

Slavin was previously vice president of communications at Accion Texas and worked in the agency world before that. He worked as a reporter for the San Antonio Light and studied English Communication Arts at St. Mary’s University, where he originally met Cisneros when he was mayor of San Antonio.

Though he anticipated a career in journalism and even worked as a press aid to a state senator at the state capital, he veered away from the political arena and returned to San Antonio, where he became involved in communications and fundraising, working at the original San Antonio magazine and Ultra, the ‘80s magazine that followed the town-and-country lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Last year, he wrote a memorial piece for the late journalist and international traveler Sylvia McLaren for the Rivard Report, copy written by Gary S. Whitford. It was a first-person account of working with a “really established, old-world PR pro,” he said.

“If you’re looking for a career, communications is never dull. PR and journalism are very exciting, and right now, technology has probably made it the most exciting time, ever,” Slavin said.

For almost 25 years, Slavin has had a second career as a singer, performing and recording classic jazz and swing tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s – tunes from the ‘Great American Songbook,’ he said.

“I really enjoy being able to use singing or PR to help a nonprofit organization,” he said.

Two honorees will be recognized at the American Sunrise Gala. They are City Clerk Emeritus Norma Rodriguez and Father Virgilio Elizondo, a long-time community advocate of San Antonio’s west side.

Rodriguez was the City’s first Hispanic female city clerk for more than 25 years. The San Antonio City Council Chamber was named in her honor for her lifelong dedication to public service. Elizondo is now a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Mary Alice said the American Sunrise competition enables the organization’s programs to continue, funding after-school tutoring, mentoring, computer classes for American Sunrise students, who are primarily from the San Antonio Public School system.

Mary Alice  and Henry Cisneros. Courtesy photos.
Mary Alice and Henry Cisneros. Courtesy photo.

“We have a fun time at our gala – it’s filled with audience participation and we get Henry Cisneros to sing,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for 12 years. We are committed to continuing these services for free in our community to help students get the support and assistance they need to stay in school and achieve the math grades they need.

“We feel very strongly that the basic foundation of math and reading skills are necessary at the elementary levels,” she said.

American Sunrise currently supports three work-study students from Our Lady of the Lake University and a professor of math from the University of the Incarnate Word. The staff includes a bilingual English teacher from Texas A&M University and a teaching assistant who organizes volunteers to work with kids after school. The group also works with Texas A&M University by bringing in students for an intensive summer program to combat the ‘Summer Slide.’ While the learning center abides by the SAISD calendar, the classes run for a few weeks through the summer.

This fall semester, the organization awarded four college scholarships to American Sunrise students who are entering college. The students were in first and second grade when they began attending American Sunrise, Byington said.

The Omni San Antonio Hotel is located at 9821 Colonnade Blvd., San Antonio, Texas, 78230. The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a reception and cocktails and follow with dinner and the Song Slam at 7 p.m.

Sponsorships run from $100 for individuals to $25,000 for groups. For sponsorships, table reservations or individual tickets, call (210) 845-3814. Visit www.americansunrise-sa.org for more information or visit the American Sunrise Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AmericanSunrise.

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Katherine Nickas

Katherine Nickas was born in San Antonio near Fort Sam Houston but grew up in southern Indiana. In 2007, she began working for Indiana AgriNews where she covered topics ranging from corn and soybean production...